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Tuesday, August 26, 2003

My three lunches at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon

So, I ended up with not one but three lunches at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon last week in Paris. I guess it was obvious that I liked those meals. I loved the construction of the menu, with so many smaller plates that were perfect for a single diner who's on the lighter side like me. laugh.gif I probably wouldn't have gone to the place three times had this not been August though.

My first day

I came by right when they opened, at 11.30 on a Thursday. I was probably the third or fourth patron there that morning. I was seated to the right side, at the corner with my back to most of the action. It wasn't a very good seat as I had to crane my neck to look over at all the fascinating action in the kitchen.

My server was a quiet Frenchman, who was very polite and helpful. Since I wasn't very familiar with the wine on the menu, my knowledge of wine was admittedly rather limited, I let him choose the wine for me from the plates I ordered. I decided to go with a light marine theme for that lunch, and ordered the following:

Gaspacho de tomate aux petits croutons, gaspacho with croutons
It was very lovely, tangy and bright tasting. Too bad there were only about four spoonfuls altogether in that tiny bowl.

Anchois frais marinés à l'aubergine confite, anchovies with eggplant confite
I loved it. The presentation was glorious, with slices of anchovies interspersed with red bell peppers to form a perfect rectangle hiding the aubergine confite beneath. And the taste was even better than the form. The fresh yet strong taste of the anchovy was marvelously complimented by the tang from the bell pepper and the creamy texture of the aubergine.

Rouget en filets à la tomate pimentée, Mullet filets with “spicy” tomato
Mullet is my favorite fish, period, so this dish was of course great for me as well. The tomate pimentée was very tasty, and a perfect foil for the naturally sweet rouget. (Note to Plotz : I think he's fixed this one since you had it the last time.)

Langoustines à la plancha; grilled crayfish, which was on special that day
They were one of the sweetest Langoustine I've ever had. The dish was very simple. Only the best langoustine simply grilled with ever so tiny amount of red pepper sprinkled over the top. They took away my plate after I was done with the meat to grill the claws a bit more before they would let me crack into them. The waiter was so polite and spoke in such a low voice I would have had a hard time hearing him in English, let alone in my mediocre French. So we had a funny scene when we were fighting each other over the plate, each holding on the one side---me not wanting them to take the plate away because I hadn't even start cracking into the claws, and him trying to be helpful while mumbling something barely audible in French!! He finally raised his voice a couple of decibels and I heard something like ….les pinces…il faut les cuire…so I finally understood and let go of the plate feeling slightly sheepish…

Nage de pêche, sorbet basillic citron vert, “swimming” Peach with basil and lime sorbet
The sorbet was AMAZING. The combination of basil and lime is so popular these days that everyone, even Berthillon, made one. Robuchon's is by far the best. The combination was sublime. The peach was lovely, the sauce in which it was swimming were clear perfumed of mint, but after a few spoonfuls of the sorbet it was tinted green and tasted even better than the sorbet alone.

I had a nice coffee at the end of the meal which was served with a piece of yummy caramel.

The wine that he poured for me was a nice Libron Colombet Chardonnay. That glass of wine reminded that I didn't hate Chardonnay in general, I only hated California Chardonnay. This wine was a perfect compliment to my lunch.

This was as close to a perfect lunch as I've ever had. Everything was bright tasting and wonderful, the perfect expression of every single ingredients. The sun was bright yet no longer scorching. There was a slight cool breeze in the air, all in all a perfect day.

The menu looked so wonderful, and there were so many other items I wanted to try so I decided to come back again the next day.

the second day:

The next day I got to Robuchon after 12. I was surprised to see that the restaurant was again not that full. This time I was seated on the other side, to the left as one enters the dining room.

The service on this side was abominable. The server looked to me to be of Indian descent, but insisted that she spoke not a word of English when asked by some Americans sitting nearby. I thought that was slightly mean spirited. I mean, how hard can it be to say “fish” or “duck liver”, really? In any case, I ordered the following items:

Gaspacho de tomate aux petits croutons, gaspacho with croutons
I loved the gazpacho so much yesterday I decided to order it again today, and not the entrée size. Unfortunately, the soup proved to be too acidic in such a large portion. The taste was bright, tangy and perfect in the smaller portion, but much too assertive in such a large bowl. I only managed about half before I gave up.

Suprême de pigeon au chou et foie gras, Pigeon and foie gras rolled in Cabbage
This dish had Steve Plotnicki swooning after the first bite when he was here. It was served with a small covered bowl of his famous pureed potato. The word mash just sounds far too severe for such a delicate concoction. And to call it potato at all is almost a misnomer, as it is more butter and cream bound together with a tiny amount of potato. Unfortunately Robuchon's potato is such a delicate thing that a small deviation in the procedure will result in a gummy puree, which unfortunately was true of this occasion. Perhaps it was allowed to sit too long in the heat, I wouldn't know for sure, just that the puree coated my tongue in a slightly objectionable manner.
The supreme of pigeon itself didn't impress me too much either. It tasted neither of pigeon nor foie gras nor cabbage (which might have been a good thing). The cabbage was overcooked and a little chewy. I was thoroughly disappointed.

Caille caramelisée et pommes purée à la truffe blache: Caramelised quail with purred potato and white truffle
The caille came and silenced my complaint completely. All was well again. The tiny pieces of quail were coated in the most delicious caramelized sauce, and the pommes purée in this dish was perfect. It must have been from a different batch than what was served with my Suprême de pigeon. Here the pommes purée was hidden under generous slices of white truffles, and had some specks of chives in it. It was glorious. If there was such a thing as a perfect mouthful, the chived pommes purée and a slice of white truffle was it.

Tartes de tradition
I decided on the tartes today, after the waitress told me that one of the tarts was with Mirabelle, which has got to be one of my favorite plums. The tartes were tasty of course, but they didn't quite blow me away.
I was surprised when the server landed a tray of coffee and its accoutrement in front of me barely half way into my dessert course. I refused to take it and simply asked her to bring me another one *after* I was done with my dessert. She huffed and puffed and complied.

At the end of the meal I had words with the hostess, asking her to send my compliment over to the service people on the other side, as I had a much better time here yesterday. She asked me why and I explained. She gasped when I got to the coffee incident. At the end she profusely apologized, asking me to return soon in spite of this day, promising to always seating me over there from now on.

My third lunch:
The next day I rolled out of bed contemplating what to do for the day. It was already past noon and I was hungry. It was my last day in Paris, and apparently I couldn't think of a better place to lunch, so I ended up again chez Robuchon. Again I was surprise to see some seats available even on a Saturday.

The hostess was smiling from ear to ear when she saw me stepping out of my cab. She of course seated me on the right side, as she did my first day, but this time on the far right of the counter, the “special” place as I found out from my Opinionated chums. She introduced the quiet waiter (Christophe), and the wine lady (Rachel), who barely two seconds later reappeared with a bottle of champagne, and poured me a glass on the house. This was turning to be another great lunch. :-)

I decided to not do the ordering myself today, placing my trust in the capable hands of Christophe. I told him what I already had, and gave him the free hand. He did not disappoint. Looking at my slight frame he decided to start with two small dishes and then we would decide if I needed anymore. I told him he underestimated me, he smiled, not believing me of course.

(I lost the check for this lunch so I don't have the complete names of the dishes, sorry.)
He started me off with the egg cocotte. It came in a martini glass, with something resembling pesto at the bottom, and barely coddled egg yolks hiding in a pool of cream and mushroom. It was marvelous, even Maureen would like this one I think. A great beginning. He poured a lovely chardonnay to go with this.

The second plate was simply grilled large prawns, which were still alive in the sushi-like display case at the counter! They were sweet and delicious, though I preferred the langoustine from the other day.

After the two courses, he asked if I was hungry enough for a large dish, or should he choose me another small one to finish. He looked truly surprised when I said I could do with another small and then a large one!

The next thing that appeared was a plate of grilled lamb chop with rosemary. Every bite of the meat was perfectly seasoned, cooked and perfumed. It was also served with a side of pommes purée, and luckily this one was perfect. Christophe poured a great Bordeaux to accompany my meat dishes.

When he took away the plate after I was done, he asked me again if I wanted a large dish to finish. As if on a dare I said yes, though I was beginning to feel a few pounds heavier. This is a matter of face now, and I wasn't going to lose it!!

I told him I simply adored the caille caramélisée I had yesterday. He said since this was my last day in Paris, would I like to repeat it. I said why not. And so I had the caille again, and it was as perfect as it was yesterday. I even finished the pommes purée as well.

For dessert he suggested a mango concoction with a sorbet of raspberry and a tuille cookie. His favorite on the menu, he said. It was simply wonderful. I liked it as much as I did the peach and sorbet from the first day.

All in all, I think this place is great. For a single diner, as I was at all of my three lunches, the collection of smaller dishes and some larger ones were perfect. I got to try as many things I wanted, without wasting much on the plate. I had some great conversation with the neighbors, it appeared the sushi setting got even the French to have small talks with strangers.

I didn't see much seat turnover, though I was only there during lunch. I think I agree with Steve on his assessment of the economics of running a place such as this for Robuchon, while at the same time wishing he would be proven wrong. I would love for Robuchon to do well in this format as I so enjoyed it. I paid about 100 euro for each of my lunches, and love them almost as much as my dinner at L'Arpège a few nights before.


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